ESMT Case Study

Dr. Semmelweis at Vienna General Hospital

ESMT Case Study No. ESMT-416-0168-1
Ulf Schäfer (2016)
Subject(s): Human resources management/organizational behavior
Keyword(s): Change, change management, adaptive change, adaptive leadership, resistance to change, decision making, paradigmatic change, (natural) experiment, scientific method, theory of science, history of science, error management, R&D management

The case provides an example of an individual who meets harsh criticism, personal attacks, and broad resistance despite clear evidence that what he is proposing is right and could save the lives of thousands of human beings. The case recounts the story of Dr. Ignaz Philip Semmelweis, a pioneer in medical antiseptic procedures who is today known as “the savior of mothers.” In 1847, Semmelweis discovered that the practice of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics can effectively eliminate the outbreak of puerperal fever (“childbed fever”), a condition that killed up to 30 percent of mothers and babies in maternity clinics at the time of the case. The relatively short case – which is designed to be handed out during class – is divided into three parts. Part A describes the situation at Vienna General Hospital in 1846, when Semmelweis is assigned to head one of the two maternity clinics. Much of this part is dedicated to describing the natural experiment that Semmelweis encountered when learning that the two clinics had vastly different mortality rates. Part B lists the many hypotheses that Semmelweis had formulated and refuted, reports on his discovery that the contamination of women by doctors performing anatomical dissections of corpses is causing puerperal fever, and reveals his findings that it can be easily and effectively treated through hand disinfection. Part C provides an account of the resistance he faced from the medical establishment, despite the overwhelming evidence that Semmelweis had collected in support of his findings.

The case has the potential to be an eye-opening experience, as it describes a situation in which the protagonist of change is unable to convince the relevant community, despite having clear evidence: Semmelweis can prove that he is right, but instead of receiving recognition and gratitude and having his recommendations adopted, he meets resistance, personal attack, and ridicule. This is an important lesson for students, who often believe that change can effectively be brought to groups, organizations, and societies when there is clear evidence that proves the integrity of a new proposition.

Teaching note Yes
Length 9p
Industry Healthcare
Geographical setting Austria
Setting period 1846
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